The denim extraordinaire built his namesake brand from the ground up. Then, like so much in the fashion business, things went terribly wrong.
Simon Spurr sips pilsner from a tall glass in the back room of the Polo Bar in New York, the latest addition to Ralph Lauren's vast empire. Spurr surveys the painted ponies that hang on the wall and sinks deep into the leather banquette. Though the restaurant is only a block south from Spurr's office at Kent & Curwen, an English heritage brand for whom he serves as creative director, it's his first time here. Sorta. "I've never actually set foot inside," he says, "but I know this world well enough."
He's speaking doubly. From 2003 to 2005, Spurr was the men's design director for Ralph Lauren's Purple Label, the house's most prestigious line, meeting with Lauren every Tuesday and Thursday to discuss the collection. He breathed in Lauren's universe of finely choreographed equines and impeccably mannered gentlemen and exhaled finely tailored suits with just a hint of edge. And like his old boss, Spurr was once at the helm of his own namesake brand, a high-end collection of suits and sportswear worn by handsome and famous men (Cooper, Bradley; Gosling, Ryan; Timberlake, Justin) and many not as handsome, not as famous, but nevertheless stylish men. Plaudits came, profiles were breathless, profits looked promising. In fact, if things had gone as planned, he might be sitting in the Spurr Lounge, one small corner of a kingdom built on his estimable talents.
But things didn't go as planned. There is no lounge and there is no empire. There is only Simon Spurr, a forty-one-year-old man who, three years ago and at the height of his creative powers, lost control of the brand that bears his own name and, as a result, can no longer design clothes that bear his own name. The loss has changed him. "It is like I gave birth to a beautiful baby," he says of his brand, "and then it was ripped from me." Which would be tragic if, in the dark inner seams of the fashion business, this kind of thing didn't happen all the time.
People like Spurr. He's charming and reserved in a way that makes you want him to like you back. He's blessed by good looks and talent, and he is a decent darts player and an eminently good hang. In fact, life until 2012 looks to have been remarkably easy on him. "My career has had a lot of moments of acceleration," is how he puts it, "and thankfully I hit many of them while still quite young." Born in a tiny town in Kent, England, Spurr studied art at the Kent Institute of Art and Design before being pushed to consider fashion by two of his female tutors. He enrolled at Middlesex University in London, focusing on men's fashion design, and by all accounts excelled. In
1996, straight out of university, he went to work for Nautica and then Yves Saint Laurent, the legendary fashion house now under the direction of Hedi Slimane, who had been tasked by the company's cofounder, Pierre Bergé, with making the line relevant to a younger audience. "That was a major acceleration point," says Spurr, and a lesson, too: "Hedi taught me never to look at trends but to follow my own vision." In 2001, on the back of a series of well-received runway shows, Spurr was poached by Calvin Klein to become the senior designer for CK Calvin Klein, which was one of the American designer's many subbrands.
People like Spurr. He's charming and reserved in a way that makes you want him to like you back. He's blessed by good looks and talent, and he is a decent darts player and an eminently good hang.
He moved to New York, and when he arrived at Klein's midtown headquarters, assured of what lay ahead, he wore a mohawk mullet, a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and albino-python cowboy boots. After two years with Klein, Spurr was recruited to work on Purple Label, and by 2004 he had risen to be men's design director for both Purple and Black labels, the latter a slightly edgier and less expensive alternative to the former. "I was told that I had a very bright future at the company," says Spurr, but he began contemplating his next move. In the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his fiancée (whom he'd go on to marry) and their Rhodesian ridgeback, he began sketching the perfect pair of blue jeans. "I always wore blue jeans growing up in England," he explains, "but here, even though we were in the middle of the premium-denim explosion, I couldn't find anything I loved. I just wanted a clean and simple jean without an elaborate wash." So he made them in his apartment.
Spurr stopped by the newly opened denim library at Bergdorf Goodman to look up his old friend Tommy Fazio. Fazio had been the head of men's collections at Calvin Klein when Spurr was there but had moved on to become the men's fashion director for the iconic department store. "One day I get a call from Simon that he's on the floor," recalls Fazio. "I went out and he said, 'Tommy, I want to start my own line.' I thought, It's about time!"
According to Susan Scafidi, founder of Fordham University's Fashion Law Institute, a designer looking to strike out on his own typically has two options: "There's a traditional investor," she says, "who usually takes a stake and looks for a return in three to five years. Or there's a strategic partner, who's going to want more involvement, whether that is a seat on the board, majority ownership, or active involvement. The ideal investor will come with industry know-how and be able to help." (Probably the most famous strategic partner in American fashion right now is Andrew Rosen, the CEO of Theory, who used the proceeds of an earlier sale of that company to help fund and guide the likes of Proenza Schouler and Rag & Bone.)
In 2005, his idea for a premium denim brand ready to launch, Spurr thought he had found the ideal strategic partner in a young financial manager named Judd Nydes. In hindsight, Spurr can't really say why he partnered with Nydes, especially since he recalls having other options. "So many of my other friends would've put in the money and stayed out of the business," Spurr says now, and yet Nydes was the one. "We were friends at the time and I figured I could coach and teach and bring someone that wasn't within the fashion world into the fashion world." Nydes and Spurr contributed about $100,000 of their own money toward seed capital, and ten of Nydes's friends contributed an additional $5,000 to $15,000 each. In the summer of 2005, the Nydes-Spurr Group LLC was born, with operations based in Spurr's apartment. The pair went back and forth on the name of this new brand. "Originally I wanted to call it Black Denim," says Spurr. "But when you attach a designer to a product, it has more guts." Plus, he says, "Spurr is quite a blue-jeans western name, isn't it?" The pair settled on SPURR, all caps.
That Spurr wanted to stamp his name onto his creations shouldn't be surprising—signing one's name to one's work comes naturally to a former art student. Still, Spurr knew he was taking a risk using his own name: Stories of designers who have lost control of their name litter the history of fashion, from Joseph Abboud and Helmut Lang to Jil Sander, all of whom started an eponymous brand, built up design teams and brand equity in their own image, sold the brand to a larger corporation, and watched as their new arrangements fell apart. The designers departed, some out of frustration, some fired, while the companies they founded and named after themselves kept plugging right along. Spurr knew all of this, telling a writer from this magazine in 2011: "I read all the horror stories. I own my own name." This was 100 percent, partially true. He did own his name, but so did all the other shareholders of the Nydes-Spurr Group LLC. "I was naive," he says now. "But when you enter a honeymoon, you're not thinking of the armageddon."
Almost immediately, SPURR was a hit. Tommy Fazio at Bergdorf bought thirty-six pairs of jeans—twelve of each style (classic, boot, and pipe)—which, at $345, sold out in four days. Within three years, SPURR had expanded into knitwear, sportswear, and even suiting, and the business had grown so much, in fact, that it needed both more capital and a leader. It found the latter in Fazio, who became the company's president. For the former, Nydes approached an acquaintance of his, the Swedish heir Hugo Stenbeck, whose grandfather, also named Hugo Stenbeck, had founded one of Sweden's largest investment companies. Stenbeck petit-fils was a sailing enthusiast who had grown up in Glen Head, Long Island, and attended NYU, and according to Spurr, his investment was approximately $5 million. (Stenbeck did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
It was time for SPURR to go from a small company to a big one. In 2009, with the new investment, SPURR's headquarters moved from Spurr's apartment to a two-thousand-square-foot white-walled space in the Baron Building on Eleventh Avenue, next to Adam Kimmel's, Thom Browne's, and Stella McCartney's New York operations. "That was the moment for me," says Spurr, "it felt like a real company." That same year, he launched a designer line called SIMON SPURR. This was to be the crown jewel of the Spurr empire, so fittingly it would bear Spurr's full name, and among the glowing reviews for an early collection, a writer for this magazine described it as "precisely the kind of global perspective that American men's wear needs right now." Under Fazio's leadership, Spurr's clothing expanded to 120 stores.
Throughout the growth, there was friction between Nydes and Spurr. Spurr says now that Nydes wanted too much attention. Nydes says Spurr refused to consider the bottom line in everything from the fabrics he chose to work with to the number of garments he showed in any given collection. "At the end of the day," Nydes says, "a shearling coat is not going to be where you make your money." Fazio, shoulder to shoulder with Spurr, remembers the time as confused and confusing. "They didn't understand how fashion works," he says of the money guys. "We needed a large enough collection so we could offer Barneys a different look than Fred Segal. But they just didn't get it."
The Ides of March 2012 should have been the high point in Spurr's career. The day before, on March 14, Spurr had been nominated for a Council of Fashion Designers of America award for men's-wear designer of the year. Sales of both SPURR and SIMON SPURR were up. But the tension that had long been brewing between Nydes and Stenbeck on one side and Fazio and Spurr on the other finally came to a breaking point. Though Nydes insists there was never a crisis and never a cash-flow problem, Fazio says many of the company's problems stemmed from a fundamental disagreement about the direction of the company. "They didn't understand that when you have a small apparel company, you have to reinvest in growth. It costs money to buy fabric, make samples, not to mention marketing, advertising, bigger manufacturing capabilities." Spurr, for his part, says he had been approaching the fashion conglomerates Richemont and Only the Brave (now OTB, the parent company of Diesel) to invest in his brand in exchange for offering his design services to their larger labels. They were interested in having Spurr work for them, he says, but "they all thought our brand was too small to invest in."
However, it was not the money, or lack of it, that would ultimately force Spurr's hand. "The clincher," he says, "was my name." Before launching the designer line back in 2009, Nydes-Spurr Group LLC had trademarked the name Simon Spurr. Both Spurr and Fazio say they suggested entering the trademark into a trust, which would own the name and license it to the company as long as certain benchmarks in quality and brand position were met. Nydes and Stenbeck demurred, and, according to Spurr, "they told me they owned me." Things came to a head in the spring of 2012, and even as news of the CFDA nomination broke, Nydes and Spurr bickered. On March 16, when it became clear no more investment was forthcoming and no trust would be established, Spurr e-mailed his resignation to all the shareholders. "They called my bluff," he explains, "and I delivered."
"Ultimately, it wasn't just one thing," says Spurr. "It was seven years of attrition. There comes a point where either you can break or you can walk away, and I wasn't going to break." Though Spurr attempted to regain control of the trademark, his efforts didn't pan out. "My lawyers and I tried to negotiate with Judd but to no avail," Spurr says. "Their response is that they want a small equity stake of a possible new venture, to which I am categorically opposed." So the name "Simon Spurr" belongs to the LLC, and the LLC isn't about to let go. "It's absurd to think that this brand, which we all invested our time and money in, is something that Simon can just walk away with," says Nydes. "It's ours too." (Nydes is not without standing. Scafidi, the fashion-law professor, says ultimately the trademark is any fashion label's single most valuable asset. "Designers come and go. Inventory is actually a detriment. It comes down to the name.")
"THERE COMES A POINT WHERE EITHER YOU CAN BREAK OR YOU CAN WALK AWAY, AND I WASN'T GOING TO BREAK."
After the break, things fell apart for Spurr. "It took me six months to really get over it," he says, and to realize "that Simon Spurr the brand did not define Simon Spurr the man." Two months into that period of mourning, his marriage disintegrated. "When I walked away from my brand, I walked away from my marriage, too… ." Spurr says, falling silent for a time. "I thought I'd never do fashion again."
Meanwhile, Simon Spurr the brand chicken-headed it around the marketplace. Spurr says the company attempted to hire designers to replace him. (Nydes denies this.) Then, he says, they tried to sell the brand, but no one would buy. (Nydes denies this, too.) Finally, the company partnered with the discount retailer Gilt Groupe, which created a much cheaper line, confusingly called either Simon Spurr or Spurr NY, its styles recycled from what its namesake designer used to design. The clothes continue to sell on Gilt, though Spurr has yet to receive any profits.
Sitting in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo, on a break from his day job as principal of a small financial firm, Nydes says he still isn't sure what went wrong. "The business was growing just how we wanted." (A follow-up conversation to confirm or deny Spurr and Fazio's version of events grew heated. Nydes claims that as a private company, the affairs of the Nydes-Spurr Group LLC are his business and his alone.) He is still hoping that the relationship can one day be salvaged. "Simon can come back to the table any time," he says. "We're just keeping the DNA alive." He should not hold his breath. "Sometimes his lawyer reaches out to my lawyer about getting the band back together," says Spurr. "But that will never happen as long as I'm alive."
It's a few days shy of his birthday and Spurr is wearing a beautiful cream cotton sweater he designed for Kent & Curwen's Fall 2014 collection. Though he continued consulting with Tommy Hilfiger on a part-time basis following his split from the brand, he didn't return to a starring role in fashion until 2013, when he went to work for his current employer, and he has helped restore vitality and verve to a very old, very English brand. The sweater he's wearing fits his athletic frame snugly and well. But, he says, sighing, "it didn't get picked up." What he means is that this is a garment he designed and created a sample of but it never got made for distribution and sales. "About 40 percent of what I do at Kent & Curwen doesn't get made … and it's usually my favorite stuff. It's not my vision, and I'm cognizant of that."
To say Spurr lost everything is a little silly. He has a good job. He has his health. He has a beautiful girlfriend. But he doesn't have the right to his own name as he sees fit, and he can't stop other people from saying and doing things in his name, either, and that's not nothing. The turmoil has taken its toll. "I can imagine a life without fashion, easy. My mother's family were sculptors, you know," he says musingly. "Her great-great-uncle made the National War Memorial in Canada." Spurr has recently taken up sculpture somewhat seriously. He works in marble, and one can imagine that he carves his name into each and every finished piece. SIMON SPURR, etched in stone, forever.